Media Blog

A Day in the Life of a Bad Story: Houston Chronicle Flub

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is unhappy with the Houston Chronicle, and it’s not hard to see why. He was slammed in a news story, followed by a column, followed by an editorial, on the grounds that he said he was happy with Texas’s health-care environment even though the state has a relatively large number of uninsured people. Cornyn’s telling of the story, if accurate, is grounds for a legitimate beef — and also an example of how bad journalism spreads in a viral fashion.

The story was headlined: “Senator says state is a model for nation, despite having so many without insurance.” But Cornyn says that he did not speak about health-insurance coverage at all; rather, he gave a talk in which he mentioned Texas’s efforts to reduce doctors’ liability-insurance premiums, especially the state’s fruitful program of tort reform.The senator was holding up Texas’s tort-reform project as a model for the nation. Afterward, he was asked by a Chronicle reporter about the number of uninsured in Texas; Cornyn says he agreed that the state has too many uninsured and then outlined a few of the things he’s done to try to help improve access to health-care services for them.
Chronicle managing editor for news deputy managing editor for news George Haj did not return my call seeking comment for this post, so I don’t have the paper’s side. I’ll update if the paper offers any explanation, but it looks like a classic case of a reporting applying a quote to something other than what the speaker was talking about. This happens; reporters, especially those suffering from a desire to be political activists, become fixated on an issue and sometimes forget that the people they are covering talk about other issues, too. Health insurance is not the same thing as access to health-care, much less is it the same thing as tort reform. It looks like the Chronicle just got this one wrong.
Inaccurate news coverage is bad enough, but Cornyn then found himself being verbally smacked around in an opinion column in the same newspaper. The columnist, who Cornyn says never talked to him about the subject, based his opinion piece on the apparently flawed news article. And then the Chronicle published an editorial on the same subject, based on the same news reporting, again without seeking comment or perspective from the senator. This is a particularly egregious abuse in this case, because the opinion columns weren’t abstract policy pieces but personal attacks on Cornyn. One was addressed to him personally (““Senator, Listen to Those Without Health Care”) and another in the headline accused him of being “Out of Touch.” These pieces are about Cornyn, not about health policy. And both were based on what seems to be an erroneous news report in the same publication.
Cornyn says he asked for an opportunity to respond and was refused by the Chronicle. If the paper actually got it wrong in the way Cornyn says they did, they owe him an apology and a correction — or, at the very least, a chance to respond.
Unfortunately, if the subject comes up again, another sloppy reporter will Google the controversy and come up with three different citations for the same version of events — a version that probably isn’t accurate. In Google era, bad journalism lives forever.
UPDATE: I left the “deputy” off of Haj’s job title, giving him a promotion. 

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